Civil society as a whole – including charities, non-profits, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and corporate social organisations – is increasingly being affected by the growth of artificial intelligence (AI).
Like any emerging technology, there are risks as well as rewards for those willing to engage during the early stages. This is a subject I look at in depth in this research paper, released today at London Tech Week, “Machine-Made Goods: Charities, Philanthropy & Artificial Intelligence.”
AI is certainly in a formative stage of its development, but its impact is already being felt everywhere. Most of us have heard of AI and will have seen at least some of the flashy headlines. But many organisations in civil society may see these headlines and still wonder why AI has anything to do with them at all. But this is a short-sighted approach.
There are serious growing pains and the AI community needs to address them. But it isn’t all doom and gloom. The potential for AI to do good is also huge. This is why it’s so important that civil society organisations have a seat at the top table, side-by-side with tech companies and governments, to ensure AI develops responsibly.
For example, The Children’s Society has been using Microsoft’s AI-powered live translation tools when speaking with young refugees and migrants in London. This technology enables you to hold a direct conversation using a mobile phone or Voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) software, such as Skype, and have your speech translated into another language in real time.
There are going to be major challenges when it comes to realising the potential good of AI. Below are four of the biggest speedbumps that charities will need to tackle.
Finding the resources to invest in new technology is a challenge that pretty much every charity faces. After all, there isn’t a magic money tree for charities to play with. Grant-makers such as trusts and foundations can help here, with their financial support key when a charity or NGO has a compelling case for investing in new technology.
The corporate sector also has a vital role to play. Many private companies across a wide range of sectors are experimenting with technologies such as AI, and there’s a case for saying that they should align some of their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programmes or corporate philanthropy in the same direction. This could provide the necessary finance for charities to develop AI applications for social and environmental use cases, whilst also perhaps giving the company themselves further insight into how the technology can best be used.
New technologies are inevitably seen as high risk. If we make the obvious assumption that most charities operate with limited resources, it’s going to be extremely difficult for them to justify to both donors and trustees that getting into AI as early adopters is a good idea.
The challenge, then, is how to mitigate or reduce this risk. One solution is to encourage stronger partnerships between civil society and the tech sector, so that the fiscal responsibility for shouldering innovation risk is spread more equitably.
Let’s be fair to charities; why would many (if any) have the in-house skills necessary to develop AI systems? The Charity Skills Report 2018 found that 73% of organisations reported having low to very low skills in AI. Widespread use of the technology is still at a relatively early stage, so we shouldn’t expect charities to be leading the charge!
Another recent report, this one from Chinese tech giant Tencent, showed that the huge interest in AI is outstripping the supply of people with the required skills. There are currently 300,000 AI technicians worldwide, but we’ll need millions in the coming years.
And finally, leadership ─ both at a senior management and a trustee level ─ is absolutely vital when it comes to charities engaging with new technology. In the Charity Digital Skills Report 2018, 77% of respondents said that they would like to see their leadership team develop “a clear understanding of what digital could achieve”, while 63% said they would like to see them develop “understanding of trends and how they affect your charity”.
Evidently, it’s important to look ahead by supporting wider awareness and education. This way the leaders of tomorrow will have the technical skills and understanding they need to lead charities down a more tech-savvy path.
There’s a lot to ponder for charities if they’re to get on board with new technologies such as AI. At times it’ll be expensive, require leaps of faith, and a shift in leadership attitudes is essential. But these are all surmountable barriers with the right investment, partnerships and growth strategies. With guidance and support, charities can harness artificial intelligence to improve countless lives and put civil society at the forefront of innovation.